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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

Nadine Gordimer Remembered

Thank You Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer, renowned South African writer, political activist, and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature passed away, 13 July, 2014 at the age of ninety. Gordimer authored fifteen novels and a dozen short story collections. For me, this sad news resonates with special meaning. Although I spoke to her only once, briefly over the telephone, there are intriguing coincidences between her origins and mine.

 Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923, in a dusty mining town near my hometown of Johannesburg. She was in her twenties during WWII, and when the South African apartheid government was voted into power in 1948. In my memoir,
Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid: Growing Up White in Segregated South Africa, I write:
My early childhood memories are a dissonant clash of vibrant sunshine and terrifying shadows, of simple pleasures and dark terrors. Like shards of colored glass, they are fragmented and vivid, suffused with color and light, dimmed only by my childhood fears, the repressive apartheid regime and the war, gathering like ominous black clouds on the distant horizon.

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Gordimer’s father, Isidore Gordimer, was a Jewish immigrant from the shtetls of Lithuania. Her mother, Hannah Myers Gordimer, was from London. Her father was not particularly attuned to the repression of black people under apartheid. Gordimer’s mother showed her concern for the poverty and discrimination faced by black people by founding a day care center for black children.
I too, grew up in South Africa. Like Gordimer, I was raised in a Jewish, but mostly secular household. I was born at the start of WWII and lived under apartheid. Like Isidore Gordimer, my father, Cecil Klein, was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania as were my maternal ancestors. Like Gordimer, I grew up in a household where the politics of race were rarely discussed. Gordimer said, in her world, the minority whites lived among blacks “as people live in a forest among trees.”
In my memoir I write: Lapping at the white suburbs, like an incoming tide, were the squalid and dangerous “native” townships, or shantytowns, where the Bantu, or black people, lived. These townships were as beyond my experience as distant, hostile planets; no white person I knew dared venture there.
My father experienced anti Semitism in Lithuania, yet voted for members of parliament who supported apartheid. My mother, Gertrude Shochet Klein, was born and raised in South Africa. Traumatized by losing members of her family in the Holocaust, my mother became apolitical. I was elementary school when apartheid became the rule of law in South Africa in 1948. I remember that historic event clearly:
May 26, 1948. What happened on that fateful day sticks in my memory like the thorns of a burr weed: The Afrikaner Nationalist Party was voted into office, impelling a system of racial segregation and white supremacy that would shape every aspect of life in South Africa. The night before, I overheard my parents discussing the election and what it might mean to our family’s future. I wondered: Why is ma so upset, when Dad is pleased that the Nationalist Party will win? Behind the Walled Garden
Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days (1953), which I read around middle school, left a deep impression on me. The novel is set near Johannesburg, the city where I was born and raised. I immediately fell in love with the way Gordimer so lyrically evokes the feel and texture of the South African Highveld. The characters she portrays made me see with fresh eyes the iniquities of apartheid. In Behind the Walled Garden I quote Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture, a collection of nonfiction work that presents intimate views of South African life and politics over the past forty years. Most importantly, The Lying Days charts the themes Gordimer explored though her writing: the way in which external political forces, over which people have little control, can bend and shape their lives. These are the exact themes that I later explored in my own work, The Nine Inheritors, and which may have been inspired by reading Gordimer’s novel.  

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In the body of her work Gordimer incisively detailed contemporary life and the issues that plagued South Africa, as she saw and felt it. Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days, centers on a group of white liberals at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University(Wits), which is my alma mater. Unfortunately, by the time I became at student at Wits, the secret police had inflitrated student organizations and squelched them. Gordimer dropped out of college after a year, a surprising fact because young writers now feel compelled to get a college degree in order to succeed. Three of Gordimer’s books were banned in her own country during the apartheid era—1948 to 1994—A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), and Burger’s Daughter (1979). In July’s People (1981), and A Sport of Nature (1987) she envisioned what life would be like after the overthrow of apartheid. Nadine Gordimer was an anti-apartheid activist a time when activism could be dangerous. She hid wanted anti-apartheid fighters in her home, and helped Nelson Mandela with the famous speech he gave from the defendant's dock in 1964, about the ideals for which he was prepared to die.  Her obituary honoring Mandela, written just seven months before her own death, is especially poignant as 18 July, has been declared Mandela Day by the United Nations since November 2009.

Claire and South African Exchange Students at Mandela Day Birmingham Civil Rights Museum

 Thank you Nadine Gordimer for sharing your gifts with the world. You were instrumental in showing me how to question apartheid and injustice, and to find a way to record and share my observations and feelings as a writer.

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